Saturday, March 31, 2007

Rotisserie day

It's the start of the 19th year for the Whiners Rotisserie League, with the auction taking place later today. We still do it the old-fashioned way, with a bunch of guys gathered together in a room bidding on players. And it's still a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, my team (the Deep Funks) has not won the championship since 1994. About the best I could do recently was a tie for third in 2005. To get that far, I traded away most of my good young prospects, and I dropped all the way to the basement in '06.

We'll see how it goes this year. I have a lot of money to spend under the salary cap but no well-established stars as keepers. They're young, and they might do decently: Dan Uggla, Chris Duncan, Jose Bautista, Chuck James, John Patterson, Adam Wainwright and Jonathan Broxton.

Never heard of any of those guys? Hmmm ... I'd better pick up some superstars in a hurry!

Trivia question 5: In what baseball season did the original Rotisserie League, based in New York City, have its first year of competition?

Friday, March 30, 2007

The crystal ball

With the 2007 Major League Baseball season about to start, all the experts (or "experts") are submitting their start-of-year predictions.

I've done that in the past. My first journalistic-type experience was making baseball picks for our sixth-grade newspaper prior to the '74 season. I figured my favorite team at the time, the Phillies, would continue a four-year trend and finished last. They actually improved to third place, on their way to the best 10-year stretch in the team's history. And I chose the St. Louis Cardinals to end the Oakland A's two-year run as World Series champs. The A's, of course, made it three in a row, and the Cards didn't even make the playoffs.

I haven't done much better with the crystal ball since then, especially in the various fantasy leagues in which I've participated. My last year as champion was 1994.


But I'll give it a shot for 2007. Don't take any of this to Vegas!

American League East: 1) New York 2) Boston 3) Toronto 4) Tampa Bay 5) Baltimore

I've heard some predictions that the Yankees won't even qualify for the playoffs this year. But with George Steinbrenner (the real one, not the voice of Larry David) entering his late 70s, he just might authorize a spending spree to bring in high-priced ringers if the team is slow out of the gate. It's not like that hasn't happened before. Personally, I'd like to see someone besides New York and Boston in the top slots, but money talks.

American League Central: 1) Minnesota 2) Cleveland 3) Chicago 4) Detroit 5) Kansas City

I'll admit to being something of a fan of the Twins, who were the subject of contraction talks and possibly losing their franchise several years ago. Since then, they've consistently been in contention, although they could easily do like other teams, cry "small market!" and finish near the basement. I hate ranking the Tigers so low, but it should be very close between the top four. They get to beat up on the Royals all year.

American League West: 1) Los Angeles/Anaheim 2) Oakland 3) Texas 4) Seattle

Oakland is another small-market perennial contender, but the A's might have problems finishing ahead of a team that seems willing to write big checks. As for the Mariners, they tied the all-time record for wins in a season as recently as half a decade ago, but it's been a quick downward spiral from there.

National League East: 1) Atlanta 2) New York 3) Philadelphia 4) Florida 5) Washington

We can't have two straight years without the Braves qualifying for a brief playoff appearance. Both the Mets and Phillies have very shaky starting pitching, and Florida's youngsters are due for sophomore slumps. As for Washington, they have pools going in Florida on how many losses the Nationals will suffer, anywhere from 105 to a record-smashing 130.

National League Central: 1) St. Louis 2) Milwaukee 3) Cincinnati 4) Chicago 5) Houston 6) Pittsburgh

The Cardinals can surround Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter with a bunch of hefty slow-pitch softball players and still finish at the front of this mediocre pack. The Cubs spent more money this off-season than any team in history, including the Yankees, but they're still the Cubs. The Pirates might have one of the better pitching staffs in the division and sport what has to be an improved lineup, but they're still the Pirates.

National League West: 1) Los Angeles 2) Arizona 3) San Diego 4) Colorado 5) San Francisco

The top three spots should be competitive, but the Dodgers have what could be baseball's best starting rotation. The Diamondbacks are loaded with promising young players to complement Randy Johnson, who's almost my age. So is Barry Bonds, and he'll be too busy this summer with his own personal accomplishments to worry about how the rest of his team fares.

Wild cards: Cleveland and Arizona

World Series: One for Joe Torre's thumb. I mean, it's been seven years since the Yankees won it all. We're due for a depressing October.

• • •

Trivia question 4: In what year did the Yankees win their first World Series? Scroll down to see answer at right.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Hot starts

Once the regular season begins, keep an eye out for players you've never heard of before who get off to a quick start. It might not last.

I remember looking at the batting leaders after the first week of the 1974 season and seeing New York Mets outfielder Dave Schneck at the top of the list. He'd just come off a four-hit game at the expense of the Phillies - my favorite team at the time - and his batting average was a robust .556.

It was all downhill from there, of course. By the end of April, Schneck's average was .286. At the All-Star break, it was .226. After the last game of the season, also against the Phillies (0 for 3), he finished at .205.

A few months later, the Mets traded Schneck to - you guessed it - the Phillies. But he never played a game for Philadelphia, and in fact, the 1974 season was his last of three in the majors.

If anyone besides scholars of New York Mets minutiae remembers Dave Schneck today, I'd be amazed.

Trivia question 1: What relief pitcher of some renown did the Phillies acquire along with Schneck? (Bonus: Who is the pitcher's son, of even greater renown?)

• • •

An oft-told tale of a hot start that went nowhere occurred in 1994.

Karl Rhodes, a Chicago Cubs outfielder known as "Tuffy," took advantage of the wind blowing out of Wrigley Field to belt three home runs on Opening Day, off onetime Cy Young Award winner Dwight Gooden. Rhodes' feat marked only the second time in history a player homered three times in the first game of the year, following George Bell’s performance for Toronto in 1988.

For Tuffy, the season-opening salvo represented 37.5 percent of his season total, and 23 percent of his major-league career total. After a homerless 41 at-bats in 1995, he decided he'd be better off playing baseball in Japan. There, he lived up to the potential he showed at the start of '94 by blasting a national record-tying 55 home runs in his best season.

Tuffy eventually made his way back to America for a tryout with the Cincinnati Reds last spring, at age 37. He didn’t make the team, but he's still in the record books in two countries!

Trivia question 2: Whose Japanese record did Rhodes tie? (Hint: He’s the career home run leader in Japan, too.)

• • •

The hottest start ever by a major leaguer may have occurred at the tail end of the 1954 season, when the Brooklyn Dodgers used a left-handed pitcher named Karl Spooner for a pair of starts.

Spooner responded pitching two shutouts, striking out 12 in one start and 15 in the other. He gave up only seven hits and walked six, and the Dodgers thought they had the second coming of Lefty Grove.

Not quite. Spooner put up respectable numbers (8-6, 3.65 ERA) in 1955 and got to start a game in the World Series, the only one ever won by Brooklyn. But that was that. Just 24 years old, he never pitched in the majors again.

Trivia question 3: The Dodgers had another young left-hander (age 19) who debuted in 1955 by striking out 14 in his first game. Who was he?

See trivia answers at right.

Sometimes, the planets align

Baseball is a tough sport to follow if you're on an extended stay in Central Europe.

In that part of the world, they prefer to follow the likes of football (what we call soccer), Formula One racing (what we don't call NASCAR) and, if a visiting American is lucky, ice hockey. Baseball may be huge in Japan and Latin America, but it still is a mild curiosity, at best, in places like the Czech and Slovak republics.

In the waning days of the 2003 season, I was in the midst of a Rotary-sponsored trip through those two countries. We had sporadic access to the Internet, and after e-mailing my wife to assure her I still was alive, I usually checked the baseball scores. History was going to be made. The Detroit Tigers were going to set a new record for losses in a season, and I wanted to read all about it when the historic event occurred. The standard of 120 defeats, set by the New York Mets, had stood since 1962, the year I was born.

As baseball fans know, the '03 Tigers rallied to win six of their last seven games, finishing with 119 losses. I hadn't gotten to a computer the last several days I was in Europe and didn't know about Detroit's near miss until I returned home. I was disappointed, of course, but at least the Tigers set an American League record.

Fast-forward to last October, when Jim Leyland was managing in the World Series, something he never accomplished in his 11 seasons with the Pirates. His team, of course, was the Detroit Tigers, three years removed from their pathetic showing, having improved by 52 wins in that span. The development of a number of good young pitchers, combined with the acquisition of some savvy veterans - including Upper St. Clair's own Sean Casey, plucked from the Pirates in midseason - unexpectedly pulled the Tigers out of a long mire.

If they have a shot at repeating is anyone's guess, but quite a few baseball analysts expect Detroit to be right in the thick of things again this year.

Detroit is well within driving distance of Pittsburgh. A whole lot of people from this area made the commute when the Steelers played there in Super Bowl XL, a little over a year ago. (Doesn't it seem like longer ago?) In the baseball world, at least prior to 2006, the cities were comparable, with a dwindling fan base because no one expected the respective teams to be anything near competitive, year after year.

We've seen what happened in Detroit. When will it be Pittsburgh's turn?

The 2007 version of the Pirates includes several elements that can lead to optimism: an established 30-homer, 100-RBI slugger (Jason Bay); the defending National League batting champion (Freddy Sanchez); a No. 1 draft pick who actually might live up to his potential (Andrew McCutchen); and a starting rotation of under-30 types (Duke, Maholm, Snell, Gorzelanny, Armas) who actually might pitch a few seasons without hurting their arms.

Can they represent the nucleus of another worst-to-first story?

Sure they can. Sometimes the planets align just right.

But more often they're scattered all around the solar system, and it's business as usual. So look for the Pirates to, as usual, lose more than they win in '07.

And if they do the same in '08 and '09, they Pirates will set their own record: most consecutive losing seasons.

If I take another trip to Europe, maybe I'll miss that.